The Atkinson Brewery as an Emblem of History and Historicity

Amy Rosoff '97 (English 168, 1996)

The Atkinson Brewery is so Victorian that its eventual destruction confirms the sense of doubt about the importance and reliability of history that Tom, Lewis, and Price establish. The history of the brewery begins with an impulse for the big business, money, and machinery characteristic of the Victorian era. As Building for the Victorians Colin Cunningham points out: "Towards that end of the eighteenth century the first factories appeared" (4). Sure enough in 1799 "to the astonishment of the handful of villagers, [Thomas Atkinson] has drawn up plans for the . . . construction . . . of a malting house of largest and most up-to-date pattern" (Swift, 59). The Atkinsons build this factory with the conviction that powered the Industrial Revolution: "The man who builds a malting house at Kessling and has the keys to the river will bring wealth to a wasteland and to himself" (58).

According to Robert Furneaux Jordan's Victorian Architecture , "urban growth was a tale of squalor, cruelty and death" (34). Swift never gives us the graphic details of the how hard the laborers work in the Atkinson Brewery, but there are implications that the situation resembles Jordan's description. Swift compares the brewery workers to the peasants of the French Revolution, calling the brewery "the local Bastille" (63). This metaphor suggests that the people of Gildsey do live the "tale of squalor" that Industrialization brought to England.

Jordan further describes the class struggle of Victorian England by calling "poles of slums and prosperous suburbs . . . the architectural core of the nineteenth-century city" (40). The brewery in Waterland contributes to this growing gap between the rich and the poor. The Atkinsons open the brewery with the idea that they are doing a favor for the less fortunate: "We must help these poor besodden Fenlanders. They need a little cheer in their wretched swamps" (58). This favor, however, includes grueling physical labor on the part of the working class. In 1843 George Dodd writes a book called Days at the Factories in which he describes the work typical of the London Brewery. It is likely that the labor on the Atkinson Brewery is similar. Dodd explains that to carry the malt into the brewery:

Each man carries his bag of malt into the warehouse, up several flights of stairs, and empties the contents into one of a series of enormous bins or boxes. . . In this manner each man will frequently carry four hundred loads in a day (20-21)

This backbreaking labor creates a product that makes the Atkinson's famous. In fact, around 1820 "something is happening to Thomas [Atkinson], . . . He is becoming a monument. Man of Enterprise, Man of Good Works, Man of Civic Honour" (64).

Not only is the context in which the brewery exists decidedly Victorian, but the description also seems to echo Victorian architectural description:

. . . its foundation stones give way to its part brick and part stone-faced walls, and . . . its brick and stone-faced walls give way to elaborately embellished cornices and friezes . . . and to a roof part gabled and part widely arched in the manner of railway termini, and . . . the roof leads on, in turn, to a four-sided chimney, sixty-six feet high, the sides tapering upwards and faced with brickwork fluting, and the whole crowned, beneath the vent, by more ornate moulding and friezing (of indeterminate style but said by the architect to suggest an Italian campanile) (77-78).

Ruskin gives elaborate descriptions in The Stones of Venice that resembles this description. The way that the narrator begins at the foundation of the building and pans upward, as though through the lens of a camera is typically Ruskinian. In addition to this cinematic gaze, the description includes various architectural terms that Ruskin takes pains to define such as "cornices and friezes." The unusually long sentence also mirrors Ruskin's style of description, and the appreciation for the Italian campanile resembles Ruskin's idealized descriptions of Venice.

The brewery becomes even more a product and symbol of its era when in 1851 "amongst the products privileged to be represented at the Great Exhibition was a bottled ale from the Fens, known appropriately as Grand '51" (78). The Great Exhibition, a defining event of the nineteenth century, exemplifies the industrial spirit of the age and remains famous for the products displayed there. In 1851 Charles Babbage explains the event in his book Exposition of 1851:

England has invited the civilized world to meet in its great commercial centre asking it, in friendly rivalry, to display for the common advantage of all, those objects which each country derives from the gods of nature, and on which it confers additional utility by processes of industrial art (Babbage, v).

The fact that the Atkinson Brewery is represented in the Exhibition further shows how this building has become a symbol for Victorian England.

In so many ways this building embodies the tone of the times that when it goes up in flames it reveals Swift's message that Tom, Lewis, and Price teach throughout the novel. The moral is that the firm foundation we perceive history to be is no less transient than the present. The Atkinsons tried to be a pillar of their time and leave a mark that will endure into the future, "But as twilight became evident that the brewery, The New Atkinson Brewery, built in 1849 was on fire" (151). Once the brewery is gone it slips from the course of history, and time goes on without it. For example, World War I ends and "because . . . there was no brewery" there is no ale to mark the Armistice. The fire reduces the Atkinson's influence on the future to smoke and ash. Subtly Swift tells us that history is an illusion behind a veil of flame.

Ernest Atkinson knows about this illusion and as a result he has an immense "fear for the future" (140). The narrator tells us that he may have had Sarah Atkinson's prophetic powers. If that is true he saw the fire before it happened. He knows that he and his family are only temporarily important and that through time their power will disappear. How this happens no one can explain. Through the course of time people simply forget. We tell and retell the history until the details are hazy and the truth indistinguishable. In the same way, "No one knows how [the fire] started" (151). In a matter of hours the brewery is gone; the era is gone; the present is upon us, and the past is no longer relevant. Swift, thorough the voice of Tom Crick, warns the children about this phenomenon: "Ah, the idols and icons of history, ah, the emblems and totems of yesterday. How we knock down one, another rises in its place" "no one ever said it would last forever" (155, 291).

Works Consulted

United Kingdom